Reuven Rivlin in the European Parliament: Counters delegitimization of Israel but fails to explain lack of peace process
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Reuven Rivlin in the European Parliament: Counters delegitimization of Israel but fails to explain lack of peace process

photo credit: European Parliament
photo credit: European Parliament

Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin was visibly touched when he addressed the European Parliament (22 June). He was greeted with applause and received a standing ovation after finishing his speech, given in Hebrew.

The session in the plenary started with the Israeli anthem, Hatikva (= Hope). Written during a period when many nations in Europe yearned for freedom, it runs “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land.”

Did Rivlin’s speech, eloquent and passionate as it was, express any hope for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians and a way out of the conflict, “this bloody vicious cycle” as he described it? It’s difficult to say. There were parts of his speech that sounded as if they had been drafted by the office of Israeli Prime Minister.

Rivlin started with a brief overview of modern European history that has affected the Jews so tragically and concluded:  “Regardless of the perspective with which we look at this, our past, our present, and the future we are awaiting are intrinsically linked, Israel and Europe, in an unbreakable bond,” Rivlin said.

He referred to common values: “Liberty, equality, justice, pluralism and religious tolerance, democracy; these are the basic tenets inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These are the constitutive values of the European Union.”

Rivlin described Europe as being “embarked upon a process of removing partitions between nations and states, (while) Israel wishes, and indeed must, remain first and foremost a national homeland, a safe haven for the Jewish people.” He could have added that EU, notwithstanding deepening integration, is still made up by nation states.

Addressing the “massive criticism” against Israel, or rather the policies of its government, he felt that it stems from a misunderstanding of the situation on the ground and some kind of impatience towards Israel. But he also regrettably admitted that this feeling is mutual.

Is there a way to overcome this?  “My European friends,” Rivlin said, “we cannot agree on everything. But as friends and as true allies, I call upon you and ask you, let us be patient. Please respect the Israeli considerations, even when different from your own.”

He assured the European Parliament that “from 1993, in which the Oslo Accords were signed, the elected Israeli leadership has been – and is – in support of the solution of ‘two-states for two peoples’. Furthermore, being well versed in the Israeli Parliament, I do know that any political agreement brought before the Israeli Knesset by an elected government will be approved.”

So why is there no solution to the conflict yet and an end to an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years? And how would a permanent comprehensive solution, acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, look like? Rivlin replied to the first question but didn´t address the second one.

He didn’t use the word occupation in his speech. In Israel he is often more outspoken in his sometimes veiled criticism against Netanyahu’s government – in the European Parliament he must have felt an understandable need to defend Israel against its adversaries.

To some extent he is right that current “practical conditions, the political and regional circumstances which would help us to reach a permanent agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians” are failing to materialize. But these conditions sounded more as pretexts for not launching any confidence-building measures to break the stalemate or for objecting to international initiatives.

While a united Palestinian leadership is missing, as he noted, the working assumption has been that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian authority under Mahmud Abbas would be put to a vote among the Palestinians and, if accepted by a majority, also accepted by Hamas.

Rivlin is right that “a “chaos-stricken Middle East in which uncertainty is the only certainty” is threatened by radical Islam. But why this should prevent Israeli-Palestinian peace was not explained. The same goes for the lack of economic infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank. Peace would bring enormous economic dividends to both parties.

Instead he criticized the international community for adhering to an “inflexible paradigm of striving to renew negotiations toward a permanent agreement”. He claimed that such negotiations, having failed in the past, will fail again, not because of lack of good will but because of the “present situation on the ground.”

The French imitative, adopted by EU, suffers according to Rivlin from the same “fundamental flaw” and would only be an attempt “to return to negotiations for negotiations’ sake”. It is easy to see such a belief becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rivlin is obviously afraid that another unsuccessful round of negotiations will “push the two peoples deeper into despair” and result in more violence.

Instead of “peace now”, Rivlin outlined a number of constructive measures in the form of regional cooperation, developing a stable Palestinian economy, and finding a solution to the “human tragedy in Gaza” – all measures that “can be done today” without waiting for the elusive peace in the future.

These are of course overdue measures and would go a long way in improving the situation on the ground. When stating that Israel considers the “rehabilitation of Gaza as both an ethical and security interest” he indirectly criticized his own government for the blockade of Gaza.

Conditions in Gaza may improve very soon with Turkish support if Turkey and Israel will resume diplomatic relations as has been reported in media.

Rivlin had the courage to acknowledge the “total lack of trust between the parties on all levels” and called on the European leaders to focus its “efforts at this time in a patient and methodic building of trust” between the two parties. A first step to build trust could be a meeting today between him and the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas who also is going to address the European Parliament. Its President Martin Schultz has offered to organize such a meeting and Rivlin has accepted to meet Abbas.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times